Protestant hero

Himself Alone: David Trimble and the ordeal of unionism

Dean Godson <em>HarperCollins, 1,001pp, £3

There is no shortage of cliffhangers, tantrums and threats of sudden carnage in this painstaking chronicle of the Northern Ireland peace process. Nor can it be doubted that David Trimble, the once-hardline Vanguard Progressive unionist and Orangeman who, not so long ago, "jigged with Ian Paisley" down the Garvaghy Road, emerges as its (admittedly flawed) hero.

Dean Godson's meticulously researched biography offers an authoritative guide to the province's painful path to peace. It is a feast of eavesdropped political conversations, plotting sessions in Downing Street, the White House and Dublin, and surreal glimpses of a province caught between the still-fresh battle scars of 1689 and the 21st century. As Trimble enters yet another make-or-break Ulster Unionist Council meeting, he is confronted by red-faced crowds yelling "traitor, traitor", while a mob of girls wails "Ronan, we love you, we do" at the lead singer of Boyzone, which is staying nearby.

We are confronted back in London by the superficially spontaneous Mo Mow-lam (who, according to Trimble, has "no sense of personal dignity"); by John Reid's crass and matey attempts to show the unionists that he's on their wavelength, if not their side; and by John Major, whom Trimble thinks is "such a constructed personality" that he does not know if he is meeting a real person.

For those concerned at Tony Blair's apparent inability to exert real influence on the Bush White House, this book offers plenty of opportunity to study his shirt-sleeved, blokeish, "hi guys" negotiating style. One wonders if his early success in Ulster went to his head, leading him to assure Dubbya that he could persuade Jacques Chirac et al to back the war in Iraq.

Equally instructive is Godson's observation that Blair, his officials and the Ulster Unionist Party lacked Sinn Fein's unwavering determination to fight on all fronts. The men in Armani jackets never miss the chance to recite their nationalist narrative (although naturally they miss out the bits about protection rackets and kneecapped teenagers). Last autumn, Blair lost his nerve and called elections that resulted in Bosnian-style polarisation. The participants avoid taking responsibility and someone else pays the bill, praying that they don't start fighting again.

Godson is unduly polite about the province's plethora of third-rate windbags ("the internal dynamics of Ulster politics"). Perhaps because he is an eminent Conservative, he reserves his bile for fellow Tories: the "prolix and bizarre" Quentin Davies, "pedestrian" Andrew Mackay and the "vice-regal", "exaggeratedly patrician" Patrick Mayhew, whose impossibly grand family moved over from County Cork in the 13th century, and who told Trimble that "living in the south, Anglo-Irish families tended to think of northern Protestants as denizens of the wild woods".

The title, a play on "Sinn Fein" (or "ourselves alone"), is fitting not least because Trimble emerges from these pages as a giant in a landscape littered with unprincipled, specious, narcissistic demagogues and murderers. Paisley is a gossiping opportunist, both eyes firmly on the next election, spreading bad karma, flaunting his Sicilian sense of honour and offering not a single positive suggestion in his long career. Now, however, more flexible voices in the Democratic Unionist Party have quietly accepted the "architecture" of the Belfast Agreement, and are secretly working with Sinn Fein to carve the moderates - the Social Democratic and Labour Party and UUP - out of their grim equation.

Clearly, Trimble can be faulted for his curious lack of political technique: while trying to get selected for a seat in the European Parliament, he fails to mention that he speaks French and German. He politely passes up chances to make influential friends or to call in favours, and his semi-detached attitude to the Patten Commission on the Royal Ulster Constabulary shows tone deafness to the needs of his community. Perhaps with more able UUP colleagues to tackle prickly issues such as prisoner release, he could have concentrated on second-guessing Sinn Fein's skilful and relentless manoeuvring on the ever-elusive decommissioning of arms.

Trimble is also "himself alone" because, unlike most politicians, he does not suffocate when he attracts no attention. You get the impression he would like to achieve his aims of bringing self-government back to Northern Ireland and re-engaging thoughtful Protestants in the political process, and then slip off to Tower Records to stock up on opera CDs. Yet we have Trimble more than anyone else to thank that upwardly mobile provos are now enthusiastic, limo-loving members of a Stormont assembly they vowed never to recognise as legitimate. Not bad for a chap who'd rather be listening to Puccini.

Rebecca Tinsley's novel about politics in Northern Ireland, The Judas File, is published by Headline